Denver Firefighters Pronounced Woman Dead Even Though She Was Alive. Here's What Happened Next
They were proven wrong when the woman began moving.
It's a first responder's worst nightmare (and no dream for the person being responded to, either)—Denver firefighters determined a woman was dead, but she was still alive. In this case, officials say it wasn't an honest mistake and that the firefighters involved were negligent. The firefighters were responding to a man who requested a welfare check on his daughter. The woman had just undergone stomach surgery, and he hadn't heard from her for several days. It was unusual for her not to talk with him every day, the Denver Post reported.
When the firefighters checked the woman's house, they determined she was obviously dead, and they began the process of having her officially declared deceased. But they were proven wrong shortly thereafter when the woman began moving. Read on to find out how the mistake was made, what happened to the woman, and what the first responders are facing now.
On June 24, Lt. Patrick Lopez and firefighter Marshall Henry conducted that welfare check, along with police officer Eugene McComas. McComas entered the home and found the woman inside, according to a letter obtained by the Post. The officer told the firefighters that the woman's skin was discolored, she was leaking fluids, and she smelled of decomposition.
Lopez phoned the on-call emergency department physician at Denver Health Medical Center to have the woman officially pronounced dead, the Post said. Henry described the woman's condition to the doctor as being in "an advanced state of death" and that it was "verified by police."
The doctor asked Henry whether the woman had a pulse or if there were signs of trauma, and Henry said no, the Post reported. As it turns out, the firefighters hadn't assessed the woman—or even looked at her. The doctor pronounced the woman dead.
After the firefighters left, Officer McComas went back inside the house and saw the woman moving. He called the fire department and an ambulance back to the house, and the woman was taken to the hospital. Ultimately, the woman survived, said Department of Safety records administrator Andrea Webber.
"The doctor asked clarifying questions about the patient's condition and Henry deliberately misrepresented himself to the doctor as being next to the patient and as having performed a patient assessment," Denver's Department of Safety said in a disciplinary action document. Henry reported the incident to an assistant chief the day it happened, according to the official documentation. Lopez reported the mistake later.
Because the firefighters asked a doctor to pronounce a living woman dead without having assessed or looked at her, they will be suspended without pay, the Post reported. Henry will serve a 240-hour unpaid suspension, and his emergency medical technician certification was suspended.
Lopez, a 22-year department veteran, was demoted two ranks from lieutenant to firefighter and has been suspended without pay for 336 hours, the Post reported. He faces termination if he breaks another department policy in the next five years, and he won't be eligible for the promotion during that time.
"The serious nature of this misconduct cannot be understated — the patient was pronounced, though she was in fact alive, and the medical care she deserved was delayed," said Mary Dulacki, chief deputy executive director of the Denver Department of Public Safety, about the incident.
"The integrity of the city heavily relies upon the faith and confidence of the public in its public safety services," Dulacki wrote. "The embarrassing failure to the patient in this incident demonstrated an obvious compromise to that integrity."